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INTRODUCTION WHAT IS LOGIC?

WE LI VE in a world of constant change: armies collide, empires decline, sometimes whole civilizations slide into oblivion. Does anything last forever? The Apostle Paul says three things last (faith, hope, and love), but we would suggest a fourth constant in our lives: the laws of logic. We all have a sense of logic; it shapes us every day. Yet its nature is deeply mysterious. Logic isn’t like language, varying from culture to culture. Logic is like arithmetic—tricky yet objectively true. Just as the number seven has always been prime to every culture that has ever defined prime numbers, so the most common methods of deductive reasoning have always been valid. Of course, not everyone sets forth a logician’s definition of validity in the first place, and not everyone pursues the idea to its further reaches. But those who reflect on it always arrive at the beginnings of the same abstract realm, a realm infinitely complicated yet implicit in much that we do—a realm of form, structure, and pattern discovered twenty-three centuries ago. The nature of that discovery was strange, just as logic itself is strange. For one thing, though everyone uses logic, not everyone studies it (just as, though most people walk, not everyone studies walking). Logic as a discipline begins only with the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, and peculiar as it sounds, all modern studies of logic in the sense of deductive validity (meaning logical necessity) descend from his efforts. The deductive validity of argumentation was studied by later Greeks, by later Romans, by Arab physicians serving powerful caliphs in the tenth century a.d., and by medieval theologians working in various European universities. It is now

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studied by computer programmers the world over. Yet all these studies owe their origins to exactly one person: Aristotle. Most people today learn logic out of books. Yet all these books were written by people influenced by other books, and all the books have a lineage that leads back to the same original inspiration. The lineage always points back to the same Greek thinker, who flourished in the fourth century b.c. There is simply no historical record of anyone ever studying validity in the logician’s sense of the term except Aristotle or people directly or indirectly influenced by Aristotle. How can this be? If the truths of logic are objective and culturally invariant, why does the study of logic show up only in particular times and places, like Greece in the fourth century b.c.? And why do all known studies of logical validity lead back to the same original source? There is one thing to keep in mind from the start: logical discoveries usually depend on individual insight, but logic as a discipline requires something more—insight with an audience. Logicians need other people who are willing to listen, and audiences are a consequence of social forces—forces that affect large numbers of people quite apart from individual will. As a result, logic has a social history as well as an abstract one. Logic considers unchanging truths, but the extent to which large numbers of people will ever really explore these truths still depends, in part, on their social setting. And one’s social setting turns on various factors—political, economic, technological, and even geographical. The history of logic is a mix of the abstract and the mundane.

**THE STRANGE NATURE OF LOGICAL VALIDITY
**

When it comes to the early study of logically valid reasoning, much depends on what we mean by “valid.” We can get the basic idea from a pair of examples:

(1) All cats are cool. Felix is a cat. Therefore, Felix is cool.

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(2) All wicked witches are irritable. The Witch of the West is a wicked witch. Therefore, the Witch of the West is a friend to little dogs.

The difference between these examples is easy to see. In the first example, if the first two statements are true, then the third statement must also be true. (If all cats are cool, and Felix is one of them, then Felix must be cool.) But in the second example, even if the first two statements are true, the third could still be false. To revert to a bit of ancient phrasing, in the first example the third statement follows from the other two whereas in the second example the third statement doesn’t follow. The ancient Romans expressed this difference by saying non sequitur (“it doesn’t follow”). Logic studies the difference between examples of this sort, but there are infinitely many of these examples in which, if the first statements are true, the last must also be true. These are the examples logicians call valid, and by valid they mean something specific. Logicians study arguments, and an argument, to a logician, isn’t a quarrel but an attempt at proof. An argument consists of reasons, called premises, and a point to be proved—the conclusion. For a logician to call an argument valid, then, is to say exactly this: if the premises are true, the conclusion must also be true. But notice that the question of validity is strictly hypothetical in this sense: to ask whether an argument is valid isn’t to ask whether any of its statements are true but only whether, if the premises were true, would the conclusion have to be. As a result, a valid argument can consist entirely of false statements, even whimsical ones, like this:

All hedgehogs are laborious. My landlord is a hedgehog. Therefore, my landlord is laborious.

If the terms of the argument are meaningful at all, then the argument is still valid. In consequence, logic isn’t really about whether any of these premises or conclusions is true or false but only about abstract connections. It is about how the truth or falsity of some propositions would

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connect with the truth or falsity of others. It is just this fact that makes logic mysterious. Logic is the study of these abstract, hypothetical connections— connections involving logical necessity. But where do the connections come from, and why do we see them at all? Are the connections really objective features of the arguments themselves or just features of our making? How we answer these questions will help to determine just what we think logicians have been doing since they first turned logic into a discipline. When we speak of objective truths, we often mean an accurate description of physical facts, like an accurate measurement of the Eiffel Tower’s height or the base of the Great Pyramid at Giza. But when we speak about logic, we are speaking of something different: we are speaking of connections between statements, propositions, or assertions. Of course, we can sense patterns in these connections (and surely it is the patterns that matter), but the question now is what makes some patterns valid and others not. In the first and third examples from before (the one about Felix and the one about the landlord), we see the following pattern:

All As are B. C is an A. Therefore, C is B.

It seems any argument fitting this pattern is logically valid; here’s another familiar example that also fits the pattern:

All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

Yet our ability to think logically can’t depend on learning just a few of these patterns. On the contrary, there are infinitely many valid patterns, as well as infinitely many invalid ones, yet somehow we are able to classify many of the simpler examples into one of two groups—valid or invalid. So how do we do this? What goes on when we distinguish the valid from the invalid? Are we merely repeating something we have been taught? As it turns out, a sense of the most basic patterns can’t be taught (or so it seems) for the direct reason that no one can follow such a lesson

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without sensing some of the patterns already. To learn anything, we need to have a sense of logic, because every lesson is a pattern in itself. Even if we are taught all sorts of patterns (patterns like the one involving Felix, hedgehogs, or Socrates), this kind of teaching is useful only if we can also draw conclusions—conclusions from the presence or absence of the patterns. This is the same problem over again. When we draw a conclusion from the presence of a pattern, should we draw the conclusion validly or invalidly? How can we tell which is which unless we already have a sense of what counts as valid? Admittedly, we might be taught to follow rules, but to follow a rule we still need to see what that rule logically implies, which involves a pattern too. For example, we might be taught to follow the rule that, whenever we find some object A, we ought to do B; nevertheless, to follow this rule we still need to watch for A and then do B, and thus the whole procedure seems to assume that we already sense the following pattern, which logicians call “modus ponens”:

If A, then B A Therefore, B

In other words, some sense of the valid and invalid seems to be already innate, and it is exactly this innate sense that makes human beings teachable in the first place.1 Logic is present in countless mental operations, but if we ask how we really know its patterns to be valid, this question turns out to be, apparently, unanswerable. The reason is that all possible answers must still take some of the patterns for granted, at least in particular cases. We still need the ability to recognize a valid argument before we can prove anything else to be a valid argument. Any answers we come up with will still have to be logical answers, and what counts as logical is precisely the point at issue. The only way to justify the patterns will be to invoke an argument embodying another pattern; yet if we challenge the reasonableness of all patterns, no matter where they appear, we hit a dead end. Any answers we come up with, to be answers, must still involve patterns of their own; patterns are how we tell what counts as an answer and what doesn’t. Thus it appears that some aspects of logic must remain forever undemonstrated.

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Moreover, we hit a similar dead end if we try to turn the question around and ask it differently: we reach an impasse if we ask of the valid patterns, “What makes them so?”

**WHAT MAKES A VALID ARGUMENT VALID?
**

Many people think certain patterns of logic are valid only because our brains happen to work in a particular way; they think that if our brains were wired differently, logic would become illogic, and illogic would be logic. As a result, they imagine the principles of logic to be nothing more than effects of our brain structure. Logic is the way it is (people suppose) because of our brains. The idea that logic is simply a consequence of the human brain has always been appealing, but the trouble is that it seems to put the cart before the horse. It leads us to mix up what depends on what. True, our brains work in a particular way, but they do so for a reason: the way is often useful. Our brains function usefully whenever they solve the puzzles that need solving—how to grow food, build shelters, or find water—and it is logical reasoning that allows this. What this observation apparently shows, however, is not that logical patterns are valid because of the structure of the brain. Instead, it shows the opposite: our brains have their useful structure because the patterns are valid. Logic doesn’t come from our brain’s mechanism; instead, our brain’s mechanism appears to come from the very nature of logic. Suppose different patterns were valid. Suppose everything we now think of as logical were illogical and vice versa. In that case, human brains would have had to evolve differently, or our early ancestors would have perished. Of course, many behaviors might turn out to be useful in unexpected ways (even illogical behavior), but if different patterns had always been the logical ones (and if all our current patterns had been the illogical ones), then a brain that failed to reason according to the different patterns would have been useless, perhaps even dangerous. If all the logic of our ancestors had been mistaken, they would have died off. They would have failed in their efforts to manipulate their surroundings and to find water, food, and shelter. And what this consideration shows is that the very idea of a human brain evolving in useful ways (logic being one of the useful

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ways) still seems to assume that the demands of logic have shaped the brain—and not that the brain shaped logic. Certain patterns aren’t valid because our brains happen to prefer them; instead, our brains prefer these patterns because the patterns are already valid. Logic helps to define what counts as a functioning brain in the first place, and consequently it seems impossible (without circularity) for the brain to define logic.2 As thorny and difficult as analyzing the basis of logic might seem, is there any other way to explain why the valid patterns are valid? Historically, many people have tried to explain why logic is the way it is, but most of these attempts have come to naught. Indeed, it seems most of them must come to naught, and we can see this last point better if we return for a moment to the idea of usefulness. We said a moment ago that logic is useful; if so, couldn’t we say that a logical pattern is valid precisely because it is useful? And couldn’t this usefulness be the real reason some patterns are logically valid and others not? This new answer is initially attractive, but, on reflection, it appears to be just as incoherent as the last, because it once more puts the cart before the horse. Logical patterns aren’t valid owing to their usefulness; instead, their usefulness is owing to their validity. Whatever tricks of reasoning our ancestors devised to endure in a difficult world, the tricks were useful because they were logically correct (not correct because they were useful). Again, we seem to be mixing up what depends on what. If we don’t reason in logically valid ways, then we often get useless results—we get nonsense—and sometimes we make serious mistakes about how the world works. We harvest at the wrong times or drive the car in the wrong direction or fail in trying to operate a computer. And in that case, what follows is that the usefulness of our reasoning depends on its validity, not the reverse. To put this point abstractly, if giving up A causes you to lose B, what follows is that B depends on A, not vice versa. If giving up food would cause you to lose your life, then your life depends on the food. Just so, if giving up logic causes you to lose the ability to think usefully, then your ability to think usefully depends on logic, not the other way around. The patterns aren’t valid because they are useful; they are useful because they are valid. In fact, logical patterns seem to fall into a special category, a strange and sometimes bewildering category—the category that we might call the collection of life’s ultimate truths. We can describe valid and invalid

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patterns and show that some are tied to others; we can also ask how the idea of validity might be connected with other logical notions, like the idea of necessity. (We say the conclusion of a valid argument follows as a matter of “logical necessity.”) And we can even ask whether all valid patterns might be characterized by a more general set of logical rules, rules that might be captured in an abstract logical system. Logicians argue about these matters all the time, and they often disagree.3 Nevertheless, the key point is that all these studies still assume that there is indeed a difference between the valid and invalid, and this difference has been recognized for thousands of years. And it is just this difference that seems immune to any explanation whatever, whether in terms of the structure of our brains or the considerations of usefulness or any other physical fact. Why does the difference between the valid and invalid exist at all? Of course, we sometimes disagree about what counts as logically valid—and so do professional logicians—but these disagreements still assume that the difference between the valid and invalid is real. And most of the disagreements seem to involve complicated examples (where it is easy to become confused) or abstract examples (where it is hard to know just what is being discussed).4 On the other hand, when we stick to simple examples (like the ones involving Felix, hedgehogs, or Socrates), we find vast, general agreement among many different people in many different times, and the validity of these examples is no less conspicuous today than it was in the ancient world of Aristotle. The validity of the pattern in question, at least in ordinary contexts, is just as obvious as the fact that two and three make five. Our knowledge of these simple cases remains, despite whatever questions anyone might pose (even questions from a professional logician) about other, esoteric cases. (It is fallacious to argue that, just because we might be mistaken about esoteric cases, we can’t know the validity of the simple ones.) Moreover, our knowledge of these simple cases of validity doesn’t seem to depend on having any knowledge of a more difficult and abstract logical system (like one a logician might invent), any more than our knowledge that two and three make five depends on knowing the finer points of set theory in mathematics. Most people know the sum of two and three even though they don’t know any formalized axioms of arithmetic; it follows that their knowledge of the sum can’t depend on knowing the axioms, interesting though the axioms are. Formalized mathematics of the sort now studied in

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mathematics departments didn’t emerge until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but it would be absurd to say that Isaac Newton didn’t know the sum of two and three simply because he hadn’t embraced such a system. Just so, most people can distinguish simple cases of validity and invalidity, and it likewise follows that this ability is independent of the formal techniques of professional logicians. More generally, the human species has long had basic logical intuitions in many particular cases, intuitions that have proved remarkably invariant over the centuries; in many such cases, there has never been the slightest reason to suppose that the intuition is incorrect.5 In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, logicians, mathematicians, and computer scientists have also constructed alternative logical systems (often called alternative “logics”), but the existence of these systems in no way undermines the straightforward intuitions we have already invoked. Instead, most of these systems, if sound, concern a different subject matter (a point we shall be discussing in chapter 5). But how do we explain this? How do we account for this durable difference between the valid and invalid? Indeed, we might well wonder how there can be any such explanation in the first place. After all, any explanation (it would seem) must already take the difference for granted. To say anything meaningful about the difference from the start, we must still speak logically, and this assumes we already have an ability (at least a rudimentary one) to distinguish between what is logical and what isn’t.

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